When she took charge of the University of Wyoming last May, Laurie Nichols was greeted with a financial crisis that needed to be addressed in a matter of weeks, an outdated financial system that made tackling that situation all the more difficult and an expected fall enrollment that was 600 students below the previous year’s freshman class.

“It was a tough summer,” she said Wednesday.

That spring, Gov. Matt Mead had announced $35 million in budget cuts to the university, the state’s only four-year institution. That blow, coupled with a smaller reduction from legislators, meant UW was going to lose more than $41 million in the next two years. Nichols — who replaced departing president Dick McGinity — had six weeks to get a handle on the situation before the fiscal year ended.

“When you have just weeks ahead of you, there’s nothing strategic,” she said. “You’re just grabbing positions.”

UW announced two rounds of budget cuts — one for $19 million and the other for $10 million — that have already been rolled out. Within each of those larger packages of reductions, the school announced two rounds of buyouts, one for staff and faculty offered last year and a second for only faculty rolled out in the winter. About 100 employees took the offer.

Some staff did not leave the university voluntarily. Though Nichols said Wednesday that the university tried its best to avoid layoffs, she and others had for months signaled that pink slips were likely inevitable. Nichols had told each unit across campus what its share of the cut would be, and several of those — most notably IT but also the Outreach School — underwent reorganizations and instituted layoffs.

In May, 37 staff members were told that their last day at the university would be June 30, the last day of the fiscal year. They were the only layoffs instituted by the school, and Nichols said there are no plans for more.

“It’s really hard to tell people that their job is being eliminated,” she said. “That’s a tough thing to do. We tried to avoid that at all costs.”

Now, 37 layoffs, roughly 100 buyouts and 370 eliminated positions later, Nichols said the university has absorbed the $41 million in reductions. The cutting is done, she said, unless lawmakers announce more.

She said that for the foreseeable future, this level of funding — about 10 percent less than what it was before the energy bust set in — is UW’s new normal.

Enrollment rebound

Although Nichols learned within her first week that enrollment could drop by 600 students, administrators worked all summer, and the fall 2016 freshman class was ultimately down less than 200 students. That’s bad, she said, and was the low point after a few years of stagnant enrollment, but it could’ve been much worse.

She blamed the university’s lack of a mid-term strategic plan — which would outline priorities and goals — for the low number of incoming students. When she heard about how low enrollment could be in the fall, she “about had a stroke.”

“To be honest with you, the drop in enrollment was the direct result of not having a strategic plan,” Nichols said. “Nobody was watching it, nobody thought it was important. I swear that if you’d had a strategic plan, that wouldn’t have happened.”

The university has gone several years without such a blueprint, she said, which “is not an ideal state.” Officials began working on a five-year plan in October, and the UW board of trustees will hear about the proposal at their next meeting, in two weeks.

Part of the plan involves the university’s new enrollment strategy, which was designed partially by a Chicago-based consulting firm. That work appears to already be paying off: Officials anticipate UW’s largest-ever freshman class to arrive in Laramie in the fall.

Mary Aguayo, the interim associate vice president for enrollment management, told the Star-Tribune in May that the boost can be attributed to outreach. For instance, officials were in 75 percent of the state’s high schools on May 1 for signing day. The university’s plan calls for stronger ties with the state’s community colleges and increasing “financial aid communications.”

Nichols said she wasn’t surprised that the university’s 4 percent tuition hike hadn’t scared off students. She noted that UW is still one of the most cost-effective universities in the country. (Student Loan Hero ranks Wyoming third for college affordability. That includes the state’s seven community colleges.)

She also doesn’t think that the elimination of UW’s Outreach School will have an adverse effect on the university. She noted that the unit’s duties are largely being spread around campus and reiterated that the UW’s commitment to being a land-grant university that serves all corners of the state is unwavering.

But Nichols said that there will be changes to how the school handles its outreach. For instance, she said she doesn’t expect the school to continue to have roughly 25 offices across Wyoming. She said the old system of more physical engagement with communities is outdated and that the university is shifting toward a more digital presence.

Eliminating programs

The Outreach School wasn’t the only unit on campus that was eliminated as the university marches forward. The university announced in May that the technical education program, which was based at UW-Casper, would be eliminated, after the board approved the recommendation made by Provost Kate Miller and College of Education dean Ray Reutzel.

“That one was a hard one,” Nichols acknowledged, “and we’ve gotten quite a bit of push back on it.”

University officials have said the program’s low enrollment — it graduated 15 students between 2010 and 2015 — and the perception that the program was outdated and could be replaced by state licensing programs doomed it.

But supporters have countered that the program never received the support it deserved from the university, that state licensing was too narrow in what it granted and that schools still needed — and would continue to need — tech ed teachers. On top of that, they said, there were students at Casper College who were preparing to transfer to UW-C to enroll in the full tech ed program. Those students were now left directionless.

Nichols said Wednesday that the university had “backed up” and would meet with those Casper College students so they could complete the program before it was fully eliminated.

“It’s kind of an early admit,” she explained. “It’s going to be a custom-designed job for every one of them.”

She added that the engineering and education colleges at the university were both working on a replacement program that would be “high-tech, much more computer influenced ... a new kind of angle on that but a teacher education program nonetheless.” She said it would be “more workforce aligned” than the tech ed program that was eliminated.

Nichols reiterated what Miller and Jeff Edgens, the director of UW-C, have said in the past: The review that led to the elimination of tech ed, along with four other degree programs, wasn’t necessarily a budget-cutting move. She said she wants programs to be reviewed every five to seven years so the university can monitor student needs and desires.

It’s one of the many changes Nichols has instituted in her brief time at UW. It was a long year, but she’s proud of how the school handled the situation and said she hopes the cuts are fully behind them now.

“The university had quite a bit thrown at it all at the same time,” she said. “I’ve been here a year now. It’s amazing the difference it makes.”

Follow education reporter Seth Klamann on Twitter @SethKlamann

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Seth Klamann joined the Star-Tribune in 2016 and covers education and health. A 2015 graduate of the University of Missouri and proud Kansas City native, Seth worked for newspapers in Milwaukee and Omaha before coming to Casper.

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